Why are hundreds of huge stone jars scattered across northeastern Laos?

ASK LAO the ancients, and many will tell you that their lands were once ruled by giants. The tallest was a warrior king named Khun Jeuang whose armies, the story goes, celebrated their conquests in modern Xieng Khouang province in northeastern Laos, with whiskey served in huge stone urns. Today more than 2,000 of these ships, measuring up to three meters high and weighing up to 30 tons, can be found scattered across the Plain of Jars, named prosaically. Generations of Laotian grandchildren have heard the story. But the details can be blurry. Asked about the date of the events, Champa, a 60-year-old resident, believes that it was “a very long time ago”.

Ask archaeologists working in Laos and their answers aren’t much more specific. The first systematic study of the Plain of Jars was carried out in the 1930s by Madeleine Colani, a French geologist, who discovered dozens of sites and a bewildering array of objects: stone pendants, glass beads, human bones, children’s teeth. She estimated that the sites functioned as a necropolis during the Iron Age of Southeast Asia, which was around 500Before Christ and 500A D.

Events hampered further research. The Second World War, the Japanese occupation, the French retreat and the civil war did not offer favorable conditions for archeology. During the Vietnam War, many American bombs fell on the region. A third of them did not explode. For decades, the landscape has been littered with unexploded ordnance, much of which remains. The researchers pursued easier goals, leaving Laos, in the words of a Lao archaeologist, “terra incognita”.

The recent bomb clearance has opened the door to a new study. Colani knew 26 pot sites. Today, more than 100 and more have been cataloged. Technology has also advanced since its time. Scientists have used carbon dating on organic objects associated with the jars, such as bones, teeth, and charcoal. Most were in the Iron Age window. But the jars themselves are made of stone, which is difficult to date. An international team of scientists has therefore developed a workaround. In recent years, using a technique called optically stimulated luminescence, they have tried to measure when the soil under the jars was last exposed to light.

In peer-reviewed research in March, the team concluded that samples under two jars at one site probably date back to 1350.Before Christ and 350Before Christ, much older than we thought. Taken along with the dates of other objects, this could help clarify whether the jars were still associated with burial or had other purposes as well, such as grain or water storage. Analysis of two other samples is in progress. Other mysteries also remain to be solved, such as how prehistoric people moved the 30-ton pots.

Groundbreaking research has not stifled the minds of storytellers. Indeed, it can help them to spin more threads. Lao government hopes to attract foreign tourists to the Plain of Jars, which has earned it UNESCOLabeled “World Heritage Site” in 2019. Meanwhile, Laotian families and teenage lovebirds have become repeat visitors. And tour guides have elegant ways of answering questions that still elude science. Vong, a 47-year-old tour guide, explains what his grandfather once told him. If the jars belonged to giants, young Vong had asked, why are there human bones near them? Unperturbed, the elder replied, “When the giants drank whiskey, don’t you think they also barbecued?”â– 

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Jars on a plain”

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